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Workers and tech needed to plug labour gap

But as the sector becomes more technology driven, there’s a serious skills mismatch

Back-to-back announcements on agriculture work issues spell out the challenge that farmers will increasingly face in grappling with long-standing worker shortages and adopting new technology into their operations.

First was a report July 22 from the Canadian Agriculture Human Resources Council (CAHRC) that said “nearly all farm employers share similar challenges when it comes to finding the workers they need to succeed. Without a clear understanding of the underlying issues and potential solutions, workforce shortages may have consequences for this vital part of the Canadian economy.”

Greater use of new technology “has increased the need for management skills among operators who must transition from being farmers to employers, and strong productivity gains have reduced the need for some types of workers while changing the required skills for many of the jobs that remain,” CAHRC said.

The next day, in what is being described as pure coincidence, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi announced an investment of up to $49.5 million in the Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN), a network dedicated to bringing together the private sector, academia and research institutions together to accelerate automation and digitization in Canada’s agricultural sector.

CAAIN is putting together a $108.5-million project to boost artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and precision agriculture systems to help Canadian farmers be more internationally competitive, Sohi said. The research could also produce exportable farming solutions Canadian companies could market.

CAAIN will be spearheaded by Alberta Innovates and the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre with support from Alberta’s Olds College and Lakeland College and expects to begin operations with eight partners from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec. The Olds College Smart Farm will be the hub for developing and testing new technologies.

CEO Laura Kilcrease of Alberta Innovates said, “Demand is growing for Canada to help feed a hungry planet, and our new technologies, approaches and processes, in conjunction with meaningful partnerships, will strengthen our agricultural sector and help meet that demand. CAAIN will build on innovation within the agricultural sector by bringing technology to market, applying data and new problem-solving technologies like artificial intelligence, and identifying opportunities for collaboration across the value chain between sectors.”

While the number of farm job vacancies has dropped to the 15,000 range, “farm businesses lost $2.9 billion in 2018 because they could not find the people that they needed to work on farm,” CAHRC said. In 2014, the worker shortage cost farmers about $1.5 billion worth of lost sales. The number of unfilled vacancies decreased during that period which “speaks to the type of jobs that are going unfilled, likely higher-skilled jobs that have a greater impact on a business if left unfilled.”

In its Labour Market Forecast to 2029, CAHRC said technology has the potential to dramatically reduce labour requirements in farming like other industries. “Along with being able to manage with a decreased number of workers, technology and innovation have enabled farmers to streamline their operations and rapidly improve efficiencies.”

Already the sector’s adoption of technology has “contributed to agriculture experiencing the strongest labour productivity gains of any major sector over the past 20 years. Productivity is forecasted to grow by up to 1.6 per cent a year, compared to the Canadian average of 0.7 per cent, partly as a result of the influence of technology. Continuing to improve farm productivity and shifting away from labour-intensive practices will help address workforce issues.”

However, increased use of technology will change the kind of workers farmers will be seeking to men and women “with the technical knowledge and digital expertise needed to program, operate and service highly technical machinery and equipment, as well as provide specialized animal care,” the forecast said. “There is a need to develop new skill sets within the sector.

“There are many opportunities for the way forward in addressing workforce shortages,” says CAHRC executive director Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst. “Our ability to be resilient as a sector and adapt to changing technology will depend on our ability to respond in a timely way to new skills requirements.”

Our ability to be resilient as a sector and adapt to changing technology will depend on our ability to respond in a timely way to new skills requirements.”

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